Knowing How to Do the Problem Isn’t Enough

There’s an awkward situation I see happening with too many students. It goes like this: they 100% know the rules, the formulas, and the concepts behind a question. YET THEY STILL GET THE QUESTION WRONG…and not just once, but over and over again.

Is it just me, or does that strike you as absolutely mind-boggling? Why in the world would someone completely understand a question and still get it wrong? That just blows my socks off because it pains me to see how many easy points people are throwing away.

I was in the same boat. See, I took the SAT four times. Every time, I knew how to do 100% of the math questions, so I thought I had aced the test each time. And every time I didn’t come anywhere close…until I changed one thing about my mentality.

I got a perfect 800 on my last try when I realized one obvious but important truth: knowing how to do a question is not enough; you have to actually DO it…without error…and consistently.

I cannot overemphasize this idea enough. For some reason, people believe that if they understand the concepts behind a question, then they are ready to get it right.

I was leaving too much up to chance because I had put too much faith in my natural abilities to do the questions. But my biggest downfall was careless errors.


Careless errors are literally costing people 50-100 points or more! They are both the easiest and the hardest errors to fix. Easy because you already know how to do the question, so there’s nothing to learn. Hard because these mistakes are so easy to brush off, so most people never do anything to fix them. These errors feel so ridiculous to make that it seems like you don’t need to do anything different other than “be more careful!”

The thing is, telling yourself to be more careful doesn’t actually help you become more careful. Once, I was working at a Starbucks in Koreatown, and it started raining about half-way through my session. I had irresponsibly let the treads of my tire run bald.

Before I got into my car, I reminded myself, “Be extra careful tonight! The roads are slippery with the fresh rain.” So I drove slowly and watched the road extra carefully. I was determined to make it home in one piece and buy new tires the next day.

I didn’t make it.

Suddenly my car floated above a layer of water. Then I hydroplaned straight into the concrete sidewall, almost flinging my car over the bridge. My car spun 180 degrees as both airbags exploded!

Telling myself to be more careful didn’t do a thing. And so it was with my SATs too. I KNEW careless errors were killing me, by 100-150 points in the math section alone. I read the question wrong. I didn’t see keywords like “even” or “must.” I forgot that the question was asking about the OTHER GUY. I mixed up area and perimeter, or maybe I forgot to divide by two because the question was asking for the radius, not the diameter of a circle.

I knew what my problem was, yet knowing wasn’t enough. I had to actually DO something about it.

On my last SAT attempt, I made a commitment to myself. I told myself, “Pretend you’re the dumbest person in the world.” What would such a person do?

Probably write out EVERY LITTLE STEP, no matter how tiny. It didn’t matter if it was 1 + 1; I wasn’t going to do that in my head. I didn’t combine multiple steps or assume anything.

The problem of careless mistakes doesn’t just persist in math either. If I had a dollar for every time one of my students got a subject-verb agreement question wrong, despite 100% knowing this basic grammar rule, I wouldn’t be tutoring anymore. I’d be racing exotic cars in Monaco, that’s for sure.

So why do people who KNOW the rules still get things wrong? Because they don’t have a SYSTEM in place to help them consistently prevent such errors.

They believe that brute force practice will help them spot these errors naturally. And most of the time it does, but “most of the time” is not good enough. If you’re missing even ONE question that you know how to do, you are cutting yourself too much slack.


You need to GET PHYSICAL WITH THE TEST. I mean really get in there, mark it up. I was always the type of student who hated marking up questions or writing in books (even if I was allowed to). But trying to do things without physically working through each step never worked out consistently.


I may be able to get the right answer 90% of the time without showing my work or circling key terms, but I wasn’t aiming for 90%. And neither should you. If you know the rule, you should be aiming for 100% accuracy. So what got me to 90% wasn’t going to get me to 100%.

I realized if I wanted to gain that final 10%, I had to change my approach for ALL the questions. I couldn’t rely on naturally catching the error because that was inconsistent. Instead, I needed to follow a strict process that would remind me to check all the usual suspects that might trip me up.

Just today, I had a very bright student solve this wrong: 3 + x < 2. She said x could equal 2. Like, seriously? 3 + 2 < 2???! Her mental mistake was thinking that she was actually doing 3 + (-2).

Adding or subtracting negative numbers isn’t hard, but it’s the cause of one of the most common careless error. So never try to skip a step and turn something like 5 – (-3) into 5 + 3 directly in your head. Write out the double negative signs so you won’t fall for the error.


Yesterday, I mentioned a big project I’ve been working on. In it, I discuss some of the biggest concepts you absolutely have to know and use (and left out minor concepts/strategies). I did so deliberately because I want you to focus on what matters. Master that first, THEN hone in on the smaller details.

But knowing these ideas or concepts is not enough—you have to follow a repeatable process to eliminate careless errors. I reveal the step-by-step system for that as well.

Again, if you’re interested in this FREE offering, shoot me an email (just hit reply) or leave a comment on the BLOG.

Talk soon!

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